When the phone rang at his suite in Tamil Nadu House in the Capital on Thursday evening, 84-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi alias Kalaignar (the literal connotation being, The Artiste) could not help feeling his most prized possession. It was the gold ring his mentor Conjeevaram Natarajan Annaudurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazghagam (DMK), had presented to him in 1967.
Karunanidhi got it at a grand fete for correctly prophesying that Annadurai would become the first non-Congress leader
to form a majority government in independent India, trouncing the Congress in Tamil Nadu.
But Karunanidhi’s thoughts as he took the call, which was from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, were surely far from Annadurai.
By the time 76-year-old Singh finished talking, Karunanidhi, who has led the DMK for the last 40 years, could not hide his disappointment. Singh minced no words. He could not offer Cabinet berths for Karunanidhi’s 59-year-old son, the controversial Azhagiri.
As the bad news went round the crowded corridors of the state guest house, a DMK official remarked, “Annadurai used to take pride in calling the DMK a kudumbam (Tamil for family) but Kalaignar had made his family the party!”
Karunanidhi is hailed by his admirers for being adept at self-preservation. In January 1976 (during the Emergency), Indira Gandhi dismissed Karunanidhi’s government but his party was eager to join hands with her in the 1980 general elections to oppose MGR and the then Janata Party combine in Delhi!
Old-timers in the DMK recall Karunanidhi relied too much on his cunningness. He outmaneuvered his contemporaries
E.V.K.Sampath in 1961, Nedunchezhiyan in 1969 and MGR in 1972.
MGR was forced to leave the party after Karunanidhi sensed a threat from him. MGR went to create the AIADMK of which his protégé Jayalalithaa is the boss. MGR succeeded in keeping Karunanidhi in the political doghouse for 11 years from 1977 to 1987 when he died.
But when did Karunanidhi get obsessed with his family? As Cho Ramaswamy, a DMK watcher in Chennai for years, puts it, “Karunanidhi inducted too many family members into politics and that became a problem. When Karunanidhi is no longer there, it is bound to get worse.”
In fact, Vaiko, the founder of the Marumalarchi DMK in 1993, realised Karunanidhi’s obsession for his family when he was expelled from the DMK because of his popularity in the party thereby threatening Stalin’s standing.
If Azhagiri was into the Union Cabinet, Karunanidhi’s succession plan would have gone without a hitch. His second son, 56-year-old, Stalin would have become Chief Minister in a few months’ time. In fact, that plan had been delayed for more than a year because Azhagiri had resisted it till he got something in Delhi.
Azhagiri and Stalin are sons of his wife Dayalu whom he married after his first wife Padmavathy passed away. His daughter, Kanimozhi (41), who was supposed to be his ‘literary’ heir, was born of his marriage to theatre artiste Darmambal alias Rajathi.
It was no laughing matter, say DMK officials, as both wives travelled with Karunanidhi to Delhi to ensure that he worked hard to ensure their wards became ministers. “The best course for Karunanidhi was to return to Chennai as his wives’ pressure would abate if no one from the DMK became a minister,” said a DMK MP who was hopeful of being sworn-in.
Karunanidhi’s problems are compounded by the family of his nephew, the late Murasoli Maran who was a Union Minister and in politics much before Karunanidhi became the Chief Minister in 1969.